Language first, people! (Part II – The R-word!) (originally published 3/10/09)

Apparently, March is MRDD Awareness Month…I had no idea! ($5 says that they take the “MR” out of that within five years.)

I went to the awards banquet for the Hamilton County Board of MRDD last week. I love that event. The food is so-so, but the company is top notch! Anyway, this year, the thing that stood out to me the most is that Cheryl Phipps, the Superintendent, announced that after this year’s Levy vote, they will be removing the “MR” from their title. I can’t recall the exact phrasing of the new title, though I think it was something like “Hamilton County Developmental Disability Services Board.”

Good for them.

They have caught a lot of guff for that over the years. I’ve been to at least two public events where the speaker called them out for having “MR” in their title. It’s not Cheryl’s fault or anyone else there. “MR” was the title given decades ago by a group of people long gone that didn’t have the awareness that the good people who work there today do.

Many organizations – The Arc, The Disabilities Collaborative, anything “for the Handicapped”, etc. – have faced the same issue. Fortunately, people are now considering what they call themselves and can hopefully avoid the issue in the future.

Of course, the big dog in this fight is “The R-Word.”

When I was a kid (the oldest of five!), “retard” and its various forms were the most popular insult, as we weren’t allowed to curse, even in the slightest. Case in point, I still cringe a bit if I hear “crap” or “fart” in public, as those words were taboo in the Vogt household. (I hope you’re not reading this, Mom. If you are, it’s just to make a scientific point, I promise!) So, lacking any real ammunition, we started using the r-word whenever we could.

My father was the one who banned the r-word from our lexicon. He would tell us what the word meant and how people used to describe people with disabilities. It was quickly added to the list of words we could only say if mom and dad weren’t home.

By the time I started getting to know more people with disabilities, that word was long gone from my vocabulary. I did notice that my friends still used it, though. Sometimes, they would apologize to me afterward. I never felt comfortable accepting that apology, as it wasn’t my offense to forgive. So I never said “It’s OK” or “Don’t worry about it,” but to be honest, I was never very vocal about calling them on it, either.

Maybe it was because of my work at Starfire, but I felt like I didn’t hear the r-word as much until a few years ago. Since then, it has made a tremendous comeback. The r-word is used all over the place: on television, the radio, in Internet chatrooms and message boards and in everyday conversations.

It all blew up, of course, with one particular scene in Tropic Thunder this past summer. Janet Gora, Executive Director of the Down Syndrome Association of Greater Cincinnati, was on the front lines of the protest locally (along with Tom Gugel and Ian Reckers, two good friends of mine). I think she should also protest Channel 5 spelling her name wrong, by the way! If you know Janet, you’re not surprised that she would take this on. I’ve never known her to be on the wrong side of an issue. Her common sense is her best weapon and her passion for her work is limitless.

So the debate rages on. Some people think that protesting the word gives it undue power, or that it is now used as a synonym for idiot, or moron, which were once clinical terms. Many people (on YouTube, at least) are arguing for the words continuous use by saying “we’ve gotten too politically correct.” And a lot of people are just letting it slide, not taking a stand one way or the other.

I agree with this guy.

People who use “retard” as an insult are using the word’s connotations as a degrading put-down. Their language betrays their true feelings – that they consider people with disabilities with low regard.

But most importantly, using the word “retard” simply hurts. Watch this. If you have a child, you will recognize the same gappy grin that all four-year-olds have. Imagine that this is your child, the love of your life, your pride and joy. Would you want to defend your child against ridicule and contemptuous “jokes?” I think you’d take that pretty personally.

There is so much wonderfulness that surrounds our family members, friends and neighbors with disabilities. Their mothers and fathers and teachers and friends are incredible people with love to spare. There is no way anyone should ever dishonor that love in order to get a cheap laugh.

The good news is that, like “MR,” the r-word will eventually go away. It will take more of us to be brave and vocal like Janet was this summer (yours truly included). March 31, 2009 is National “End the R-Word Day.” I’m going to celebrate by calling everyone I meet that day “ridiculous,” which is a good step to take if you have a habit of saying “retard.” It’s the same connotation and even starts with “ree…”, so it’s easier to catch yourself!

Stay tuned for Part III, where we’ll talk about de-agency-fying our language!

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